It was almost too good to be true, and so it proved. The scheduled floor vote on the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act in the US House of Representatives was postponed by Democratic leadership.
The historic vote was set to take place towards the end of September, as confirmed in an email from Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) to House members, but moderates in the party ranks insisted lawmakers must first pass legislation to aid COVID-19 relief efforts and work to avoid a federal government shutdown by agreeing on a new spending bill.
“Right now, the House is focused relentlessly on securing agreement to stave off a damaging government shutdown and continuing to do its job addressing the COVID-19 pandemic,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said. “Later this autumn, the House will pass the MORE Act with strong support as yet another crucial step toward making our justice system fair for all Americans.”
The MORE Act, introduced to the House by Rep. Jerry Nadler, would federally decriminalize cannabis by removing it from the Controlled Substances Act, and allow states to then determine whether or not to establish a legal marijuana market. The bill would also facilitate expungement of marijuana-related federal convictions and set a five percent tax on legal cannabis sales to be apportioned to communities most harmed by the federal government’s War on Drugs.
“The MORE Act remains a critical component of House Democrats’ plan for addressing systemic racism and advancing criminal justice reform,” Hoyer said.
While Democratic leadership did not provide a new date, Congress is due to recess in October meaning any vote on the MORE Act is most likely to take place in the lame-duck session after November’s election.
“The leadership has now given an ironclad commitment that the House will consider the bill this fall,” said Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Barbara Lee (D-CA), co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus.
Marijuana reform advocates described the postponement as “justice delayed.”
“We cannot continue to force these communities to wait for a ‘politically convenient’ moment while they continue to be robbed of employment opportunities, housing, education, other government programs, and even their children or immigration status,” said Maritza Perez, director of the office of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) argued the MORE Act vote’s postponement is less about passing a coronavirus relief bill – since the House already did this back in May – and more about avoiding pre-election Republican lines of attack which claim Democrats are prioritizing marijuana over COVID-19 relief.
“I feel like the impulse to delay the expungement of people’s records is a fear-based response to Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party. And I personally don’t think that we should be governing that way,” she said.
“Why is it that a racial justice bill is the only one being singled out for postponement? I think that’s wrong,” she added. Postponing the House vote on the MORE Act is the latest in a series of setbacks for federal-level marijuana reform. A set of criminal justice reform recommendations made by a Biden-Sanders joint taskforce stopped short of endorsing full legalization, while an amendment to include support for marijuana legalization in the party’s 2020 election platform was voted down by the Democratic National Committee.